Tom Coventry is keen to keep North Harbour "on the boil" when he moves to the union to take up a two-year deal, and that means thoughts of the Highlanders' head coaching role for 2018 are on the backburner.

Coventry succeeds Steve Jackson at the helm of the 2016 Mitre 10 Cup Championship winners and feels his squad can push for the semifinals in their first season up in the Premiership.

With "roughly two-thirds" of the 2016 group under contract for this season, Coventry will be getting his feet under the desk when he moves north from Hamilton next month.

"It's a two-year deal. Super Rugby hasn't entered into it at any stage. I haven't had any contact with the Highlanders since I've been here, so I'm not sure how the lie of the land is there," says Coventry.


His old franchise the Chiefs last month announced Colin Cooper as their new coach for 2018, while the Highlanders are yet to make a public call on Tony Brown's replacement for next season.

While Coventry says his "sole focus" is on North Harbour, he has not ruled out further Super Rugby involvement in the future.

"I think for most provincial coaches in New Zealand, if Super Rugby comes knocking, you always look at those options... but I'm pretty comfortable getting back into the provincial side of things. I'm new to this union, so I need to dig in and do a good job with the boys," says Coventry, in what should be music to the ears of diehard Harbour fans who may have thought he was just using the union as a stepping stone to higher honours.

Coventry was co-coach of the Hawke's Bay Magpies from 2007-11 before four successful seasons bringing a flinty edge to the Chiefs forward pack. He had one ill-fated season as head coach of relegated London Irish before heading home, where he fitted in some relief teaching work at Hamilton BHS.

Coventry will be leaning on the likes of assistant coach Daniel Halangahu, and Bill Wigglesworth for intel on players and the club landscape. Wigglesworth, a former North Harbour No 8, has a wealth of knowledge from several years coaching at club and union level and, as one of just three to be interviewed, he can consider himself unlucky that he has again been rebuffed for the top job. He took the Harbour Hibiscus to a creditable campaign in their first foray into the Farah Palmer Cup in 2016, and also took the women's sevens side to the national tournament in Rotorua last weekend. He is still on the union staff.

"Bill's knowledge is handy to have. He's a mover and groover when it comes to getting things done," Coventry says.

Allan Pollock, who took Harbour to the playoffs of the 2006 Air New Zealand Cup, the last time the province had made the post-season until 2016, applied for the head coach role but did not reach the interview stage and, after coaching the Harbour men's sevens, will now be helping with the North Shore club premiers.

Coventry has been far from idle since his appointment was announced in November. His management staff is complete, with long-time team manager Peter White providing continuity to the 2016 squad. Now he is looking to fill gaps on the playing roster.

"They had a great year. I thought they were marvellous and got better and better. I thought Steve and Daniel did a great job at getting the culture right. They were physical and had some key players who stood up," Coventry says. "This year will be a big challenge, but I know the boys are pretty keen to continue where they left off last year."

He knows the challenge of winning promotion will be stark, but consistency will be vital to maintaining their position in the Premiership and perhaps threatening the semifinals.

"It's a short, sharp season, so you rely heavily on your squad and your academy.
Canterbury have probably shown the way in that regard, and unions are clambering over one another to emulate that to a certain degree.

"Finals rugby is always the main goal for any team... the first goal is to make sure we stay up in that competition. We haven't been up there before, so we need to solidify."

So to players. There is a core group returning and on contract. Chris Vui and Michael Little, the two unluckiest to miss original Super Rugby contracts, are in employment. Vui has signed a short-term deal with Worcester Warriors in the Aviva Premiership, while Little is training with the Highlanders as injury cover.

North Harbour had a tight budget in 2016, meaning just 29 were contracted, and that included long-term injured backs Rene Ranger and Pita Ahki, both of whom are on the comeback trail via the Blues and Hurricanes respectively. That duo remain unsigned, at this stage, for the 2017 Mitre 10 Cup.

Coventry hopes to see Vui back to build on his sterling 2016 Mitre 10 Cup as skipper and lock cum blindside flanker.

"We're hoping for him to return, but if you are realistic, once you enter into that market, sometimes you don't get your players back," he says.

North Harbour have already started work with a summer training squad, and form club players will be added to that once the season kicks off.

"It's always the nice challenge about coaching provincial rugby. Guys come out of club rugby, they come into the academy, and they get a chance to play in their provincial jersey, which is what it is all about. We'll definitely be on the (club) sidelines," says Coventry, keen to emulate Jackson's commendable 2014-16 approach to the promotion of club talent.

"It's a nice time for provincial rugby because you get to sit back and watch Super Rugby, but also work with home-grown players."

As a former loose forward, Coventry is happy to see the back of the aborted breakdown trial laws, which bedevilled the 2016 Mitre 10 Cup. However, North Harbour, due to trialling them in their club rugby, coped better than most with the upheaval.

"I thought last year was a shambles. It's good going back to having a contest for possession."

As for the new high tackle laws, which has been the major talking point of 2017 thus far, Coventry is calling for referee discretion. He feels there will be a settling-in period, but his side has seven months to get their head around them before the competition kicks off in earnest.